Very often, we hear a voice pulling us down with every misstep, apportioning blame for perceived failures, and constantly judging for falling short of expectations. And that voice is none other but the one ticking inside our own heads. We may not know it, but more often than not, the enemy lurks within, obstructing our path to achieving positive wellbeing or fulfilment for ourselves.
How often have we said to ourselves: "I am not good enough." "How could I be so stupid?" "It’s all my fault." "Am I a good parent/spouse/child?" "He/she must think I am a loser." These are all powerful little messages that we repeat and reinforce in our minds every single day without being aware of it.
"It is common for people to judge themselves harshly when things go wrong; it is also common for individuals to feel sad, dejected, discouraged," says Dr Jamilah Motala, Clinical Psychologist at The Lighthouse Centre for Wellbeing, Dubai. "These are just the realities of everyday living but how you choose to handle these difficult thoughts and feelings when they arise is what makes the difference. This is where ‘self-compassion’ comes in, and there is growing scientific evidence to support that practising self-compassion can reap benefits, both physically and emotionally."
The term ‘self-compassion’, she says, "essentially means being warm and caring towards yourself; and treating yourself with the same kindness and acceptance that you extend towards another person. It is also about the ability to tolerate your own distress and your own suffering in order to turn towards it to try and do something about it."
In this context, she quotes the Dalai Lama, who has defined compassion as ‘a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others with a deep wish and commitment to relieve the suffering.’ "Intrinsic in this definition," she explains, "is the acknowledgement that as human beings, we suffer, and we recognise that other people suffer too. But it also calls for having a deep vision and commitment to alleviate that suffering."
What individuals need to develop, therefore, are skills to counteract such high-levels of self-criticism by learning how to be more compassionate toward oneself.
According to Dr. Jamilah, "Developing the compassionate self can be key to helping us deal with feelings and patterns that arise in us that are unpleasant or difficult. It can have a soothing quality on our anger, anxiety and sadness."
One of the most significant benefits of moving into the domain of self-compassion, she says, is that "it can generate greater contentment, well-being and increased satisfaction. When you remove unrealistic expectations away from yourself, an internal shift occurs in terms of the change in dialogue that you have with yourself, leading to healthier and more realistic outcomes."
Acceptance of our imperfections and recognising that no one is perfect or that difficulties in life are inevitable also impacts the physical body in several ways. "When we engage in mindfulness meditation exercises, which is fundamental to the practice of self-compassion, it brings the body into a state of calm. Engaging in meditation activates the nervous system and lowers heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure. There is also a positive link between meditation and improved functioning of the digestive system and boosting the immune system."
However, channelling feelings of dejection and rejection into something positive is easier said than done. "For one, it requires immense courage to look within, face our fears, challenges and struggles and to process those emotions in order to deal with them. The natural human tendency is to sidestep pain but practising self-compassion requires you to face it head on, and this could be a very difficult thing to do."
So, why do we need compassion? How is it integral to our well-being? For this, Dr Jamilah has a very simple, straightforward answer – "because life is hard."
"This is particularly true in a place like Dubai, which represents a transient environment. With so many people on the move, staying connected with friends and family can be an uphill task," she explains. "The modern working environment is very demanding, competitive and calls for longer hours. And still, we run the risk of being criticised by our peers, colleagues and bosses. All these factors can compound and co-compromise our ability to be compassionate towards the self."
With technology now ruling our lives, Dr Jamilah also believes social media and the internet are creating havoc with our compassion skills. "The virtual world can be both a blessing and a curse," she says. "You become more self-judgmental and self-critical when you are bombarded with the so-called ‘perfect lives’ advertised to the world through Facebook and Instagram, for instance. These pictures may be far from the truth but feelings of insecurity shoot up and pressure builds up in the race to live the dream life. For someone who is already highly self-critical, this can be a double-edged sword for these images give the perception that life is great for others, making you feel highly inadequate in comparison."
Society and popular culture contributes to this too, she adds, sending constant messages equating success with accumulation of wealth and material possessions, and the general dismissive attitude towards failure and/or being average.
Cultivating compassionate ways of thinking is one of the means by which therapists work towards helping individuals relate to their thoughts and become open to the idea that change is possible if he/she allows it to happen.
"All of us have the capabilities to be compassionate but the degree to which it is enhanced within is, in part, linked to the experiences we have had growing up," she explains. "If, for example, neglect and abuse were part of your upbringing, it is possible that your opportunities for learning and experiencing compassion have been more limited."
However, just as we all have the capabilities to be compassionate, we also have the capabilities to learn how to be compassionate, she asserts. "Through practice, we can learn how to do it and cultivate it. By focusing on the many attributes associated with compassion such as sympathy, empathy or the art of being non-judgmental, we can learn how to use them to work effectively to impact our behaviour."
"In compassion-focused therapy, we do not discourage anybody from feeling sad, anxious or angry about something," says Dr. Jamilah. "We emphasise that it is absolutely normal to have negative feelings. We want them to embrace those emotions and work through that. The idea is to be mindful of your thoughts and feelings as they are, without resisting or denying that it exists."
Research has suggested that self-critical thoughts can trigger the fight/flight response in our nervous system leading to higher levels of stress and the accompanying risks of associated diseases, while practising self-compassion brings about emotional equilibrium and reduces feelings of fear, anger and anxiety.
To cultivate self-compassion, we need to understand that our brains are a product of evolution, she says. "We did not design our brains; therefore, the feelings that we experience are not our fault. However, we do have a responsibility to do something about how we manage our brains. It is upon each one of us to take the action to make change, and move away from blaming and shaming - this is compassion."
Out of the three levels of compassion – compassion to others, receiving compassion from others and being compassionate towards ourselves - it is self-compassion that is often the most difficult. "This is something I see across cultures and nationalities. Some women in some cultures are less inclined to be self-compassionate as they have been indoctrinated to be kind and caring towards others while learning to sacrifice or overlook their emotional needs."
Is compassion towards the self a sign of complacent behaviour or selfishness? Are we letting ourselves off the hook by practicing it? This is not true, clarifies Dr. Jamilah. "Self-compassion works on the premise that only when we are kind and compassionate towards ourselves can we be in a better position to extend the same warmth and nurturing to those in need."
Ultimately, she says, self-compassion is about accepting who you are, coming to terms with our human frailties. "Understanding the self-critical part of us involves recognising that our inherent weaknesses and strengths are part of the shared human experience. Being able to take a step back, pause, and look in on your sense of self and reaching a point of acceptance takes time. This isn’t something that can be rushed. It is an experiential journey."
Self-compassion vs self-esteem
Modern society today places a high value on the pursuit of self-esteem which relates to one’s sense of self-worth or the perceived value we attach to ourselves.
The problem with self-esteem, says Dr. Jamilah Motala, Clinical Psychologist at The Lighthouse Center for Wellbeing, Dubai, "is that it is based on self-evaluation and feeling different. Self-esteem is fragile for it is associated with a lack of tolerance for alternate viewpoints, is dependent on another’s praise to feel good about ourselves, and this is often achieved based on comparisons with others. The reality, however, is that no matter how hard we try, it’s never enough - there will always be someone out there who tips the scale in success, wealth, fame, smartness, achievements, and more."
Practicing self-compassion, on the other hand, allows us to embrace ourselves for who we are, she adds. "Here, you are not comparing yourself against somebody else; you are just with yourself as you are. You can thus maintain your emotional balance whether you fail, despair, suffer, or endure loss or pain when you realise that being imperfect is just another facet of the human condition."
Is happiness overrated?
Look all around you and you will find the high importance and attention given to happiness, positivity and success. "There is tremendous pressure on us to be happy all the time or stay in a constant state of positivity or pursue this if it is missing in our lives," says Dr. Jamilah Motala, Clinical Psychologist at The Lighthouse Center for Wellbeing, Dubai. "I think it is a misconception that one can be happy all of the time. The truth is despite our best efforts we cannot sustain it. We are bound to encounter failures, loss, sadness, anger but society is in danger of teaching us that it is not ok to be angry or sad or frustrated. When we are expected to live in a state of permanent bliss, some people may become concerned if they do not experience it all the time."
Happiness is overrated, she asserts. "It is a modern-day myth that we can be happy and joyous all of the time."
Compassion, on the other hand, she adds, "takes a balanced approach to our negative emotions without having to suppress or deny it. It allows us to be with our distress, feel our pain and sorrows and accept our humaneness. It allows us to be kind and caring toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate. Accepting this reality can help us cultivate our compassionate self and extend our compassion to our fellow beings."
How to practise self-compassion
For some, self-compassion comes more easily. Others can discover and cultivate their own self-compassion through simple tips and techniques and benefit from its positive outcomes, says Dr. Jamilah Motala, Clinical Psychologist at The Lighthouse Center for Wellbeing, Dubai.
Self-care: Eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, stay physically active, maintain meaningful social connections with friends and family, and take time out for yourself. These are all compassionate behaviours and you need to engage in these more often.
Mindfulness meditation: Increase your self-awareness by engaging in some mindfulness techniques. Close your eyes, sit by yourself and pay attention to what you are doing in the present and acknowledge your distractions without judging. Watch your thoughts without doing anything to them. Bring your mind to the present; notice what is happening to you - the emotions you are experiencing, the changes happening within your body, the relaxing of muscles and easing of tension. Focus on your breath. If your mind begins to wander, just notice with a gentle curiosity about where your mind has gone and focus your attention back onto your breath.
Scheduling: Allocate yourself a bit of time - even if it is only five minutes - every day just to be with yourself to engage in some mindfulness exercises.
Imagination: Use your imagination to develop a sense of compassion within yourself by creating an image that can be compassionate towards you. The focus here is on using your senses to guide you in order to cultivate your image, as well as imagining that this image has a character and empathy to enable it to care about you.
Practice, even if you don’t feel like it.